No question-LL Cool J is a legend. He exploded on the scene in the mid Eighties as hip-hop music’s first solo superstar (as well as the genre’s first sex symbol.) He maintained a position in pop music royalty for nearly two decades before 2008’s Exit 13 signaled that-creatively and commercially-LL was at the end of the line.
So, color me surprised that five years after Exit 13’s release, and several years as he established himself as a television mainstay on CSI: L.A., LL is back with an album he calls Authentic. The album title is true-LL Cool J, Hollywood star and man in his mid-forties, is being true to who he is. He certainly doesn’t need the money or the notoriety anymore. In terms of music, though, I can’t say that who LL is now has any interest to me, or with anyone who proclaims themselves a fan of his previous work.
At least we can count our blessings that LL’s not trying to be hardcore anymore. The same way no one wants to be (or should be) the old man at the club, no one should want to be the old man on the street corner, either-especially if he hasn’t seen that street corner in years. Authentic’s subject matter is fairly simple (and fairly common to LL fans): girls, and longevity. If he’s not bragging and flossing, he’s begging his lady to come back. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a little sad to hear the guy recycling some of the same topics he’s explored on his last 4 or 5 (all mediocre) albums. You’ll also note: I didn’t say that LL wasn’t trying to be the old man at the club. Some songs on Authentic are designed to be party-starters (like “We Came to Party,” one of two songs featuring Snoop
Lion Dogg) and come off kind of awkward as LL approaches AARP age.
Possibly the most worrisome thing about Authentic is its exhaustive guest list. A featured performer appears on every single song on this album, save the opening track “Bath Salt.” While the guest list is quite varied, containing everyone from Tom Morello and Eddie Van Halen to Monica and Earth, Wind & Fire, very few of them add anything to the music that they are featured on. Somewhat improbably, the best guest appearance comes courtesy of LL’s “Accidental Racist” partner Brad Paisley. “Live for You” is easily the best collaboration so far between a rapper and a country singer (although, granted, there’s slim pickings there.) Interestingly, there are no guest rappers (save the similarly past his prime Snoop) on Authentic-only singers and instrumentalists. I’d imagine that, even with the lengthy layoff, every emcee in hip-hop would salivate at the chance to work with LL. Why he didn’t place a call to any of them is a mystery to me. Even if he’s not trying to pander to a contemporary audience (a point he asserts several times here,) there are plenty of popular emcees and producers who would’ve fit well with an engaged and energized LL. And make no mistake, LL’s skills have not eroded as much as you may think. His flow on several songs here flashes back to the time when LL was universally considered one of the best emcees around. They’re just sunk by lame production (much of which comes from of a 15 years past their prime Trackmasters) and unimaginative concepts.
Also, why aren’t the songs he released late last year with Ne-Yo and Joe on this album? Had they made the final cut, they arguably would’ve been the two best songs.
There’s no question that a rapper can make compelling music past the age of 40. Jay-Z’s done it. Nas can do it. Q-Tip can do it. De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, The Beastie Boys, the list goes on. Something tells me that LL isn’t going to join that group any time soon, and if Authentic is any indication, he won’t join that group ever again. Todd, maybe it’s time to retire from music and focus on capturing the TV bad guys.